Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that nothing ever came of a movie deal for Pearl's story. In fact, there was a film titled "Whatever happened to Rosa." This version of the article has been updated with that information.
From This Story
One cool autumn evening in 1919, a crowd of prominent New Yorkers jammed the parlor of an East Side town house to meet a writing prodigy named Patience Worth. A prolific charmer who was known for her flashy verbal stunts and quick wit, Patience dictated two original poems—about Russia and the Red Cross—in rapid succession, followed by a lyrical tribute to an editor friend. Though she seemed to compose the works on the spot, her words flowed with the quality of messages punched out by teletype. Poet Edgar Lee Masters was among the astonished guests. “There is no doubt...she is producing remarkable literature,” the author of Spoon River Anthology told a reporter, though “how she does it I cannot say.” Nor could he say how Patience looked, though she was thought to be young and pretty, with wavy red hair and large brown eyes. No one, however, actually saw her. She wasn’t real. She was an ambitious, hard-working spirit.
Speaking through a Ouija board operated by Pearl Lenore Curran, a St. Louis housewife of limited education, Patience Worth was nothing short of a national phenomenon in the early years of the 20th century. Though her works are virtually forgotten today, the prestigious Braithwaite anthology listed five of her poems among the nation’s best published in 1917, and the New York Times hailed her first novel as a “feat of literary composition.” Her output was stunning. In addition to seven books, she produced voluminous poetry, short stories, plays and reams of sparkling conversation—nearly four million words between 1913 and 1937. Some evenings she worked on a novel, a poem and a play simultaneously, alternating her dictation from one to another without missing a beat. “What is extraordinary about this case is the fluidity, versatility, virtuosity and literary quality of Patience’s writings, which are unprecedented in the history of automatic writing by mediums,” says Stephen Braude, a professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a past president of the American Parapsychological Association, who has written widely on paranormal phenomena.
Almost overnight, Patience transformed Pearl Curran from a restless homemaker plagued by nervous ailments into a busy celebrity who traveled the country giving performances starring Patience. Night after night Pearl, a tall, blue-eyed woman in a fashionable dress, would sit with her Ouija board while her husband, John, recorded Patience’s utterances in shorthand. Those who witnessed the performances, some of them leading scholars, feminists, politicians and writers, believed they’d seen a miracle. “I still confess myself completely baffled by the experience,” Otto Heller, dean of the Graduate School at Washington University in St. Louis, recalled years later.
Through Pearl, Patience claimed to be an unmarried Englishwoman who had emigrated to Nantucket Island in the late 1600s and been killed in an Indian raid. For three centuries, she said, she’d searched for an earthly “crannie” (as in “cranium”) to help her fulfill a burning literary ambition. She’d found it at last in Pearl.
Patience appeared on the scene just when spiritualism, enjoying its last great American revival, collided with the age of science, and a brigade of investigators, including magician Harry Houdini, prowled the nation to expose bogus mediums. Since most mediums were women—the spiritualist movement accorded women social status they rarely attained elsewhere—this crusade turned into an epic battle of the sexes: supposed hard-nosed men of science against swooning female seers.
A long list of psychical sleuths, psychologists and other skeptics tried to debunk Patience and prove that Pearl was a fraud. No one succeeded. Scholars who examined Patience’s work marveled at her deep knowledge of the plants, customs, clothing and cuisine of several historical epochs, stretching back to the ancients, and at her ability to draw on this vast knowledge without hesitation. “Maybe there was some preparation going on during the day, yet that alone cannot account for the material Pearl was producing,” says Daniel Shea, professor emeritus of English at Washington University, who has studied the case and believes it can be explained without citing supernatural forces.
The Patience Worth case remains one of the most tantalizing literary mysteries of the last century, a window onto a vanished era when magic seemed to exist because so many people believed in it. In the decades since Pearl Curran’s death, in 1937, no one has explained how she produced Patience’s writing. Combing through the voluminous archives, however, a modern sensibility starts to see clues and patterns that may not have been apparent at a time when science was just starting to explore the far reaches of the human mind.
I first heard about patience worth 20 years ago, while researching a biography of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife and muse; Richardson had been born and raised in St. Louis, and her mother, sister and brother-in-law had occasionally attended the biweekly Patience Worth sessions in the Currans’ home. Over the years, I collected bits of information about the story, which eventually filled two accordion files in my office. Recently, I spent time at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, where Patience’s writings and conversation are meticulously recorded in 29 volumes.
Reading over the material, I was struck by the vibrancy of Patience’s personality, the authenticity of her voice and her gift for imagery. Though by modern standards her novels are full of arcane subjects and slow-moving plots, her language brims with feeling and employs a wholly original syntax. She referred to the “me o’ me” for the essence of individuality and the “inman” for the soul. She called her writing her “put” or “weaving,” her home her “hut.” She loved children and nature but also had a taste for finery, and she chafed at doing humble household chores. She was deeply religious and, even at her most acerbic and humorous, displayed an underlying moral seriousness. In marked contrast to the vague, flighty Pearl, Patience also had a potent sense of self. “A phantom?” she protested when a journalist suggested that she’d never been a real person. “Weel enough, prove thyself to me!”